WITH this selection of 20th century American music, recorded with the generous cooperation of the American Composers Alliance, the Mercury Classics catalog is enriched with three works which together take their inspiration from song and dance—the song and dance of the southern mountains of the United States (Cowell), of the Near East and medieval times (Hovhaness) and of Latin-America (Riegger).
WALLINGFORD RIEGGER (1885-1961) is one of the most powerful personalities of 20th century American music; but only in the late 1940's did he begin to attain the degree of public recognition warranted by the merit of such works as the Third Symphony, Dichotomy, Study in Sonority, Music for Brass Choir and the cantata In Certainty of Song.
Born in Albany, Georgia, Riegger was trained at the Institute of Musical Art in New York and at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. It was as 'cellist and conductor that he first pursued his musical career. Only in his 35th year did Riegger undertake a serious creative work, this being a Trio for piano, violin and 'cello, which won the Paderewski Prize for musical composition. While his early works were cast in conservative academic style, it was in 1928 with his excitingly original Study in Sonority for Ten Violins that Riegger embarked on new and radically modern paths. Making use in his own highly personal fashion of the Schoenbergian 12-tone method of composition, Riegger has evolved a musical language of extraordinary dynamism and power that could not by any stretch of the imagination be confused with the Viennese style of 12-tone writing.
As a matter of fact, Riegger's musical personality possesses three seemingly divergent modes of expression. Most personal and powerful is the pan-tonal, strong-lined and propulsively rhythmed style represented by the Third Symphony. Then there is a series of conservatively written but highly effective pieces such as the Passacaglia and Fugue and the Canon and Fugue for Strings. Thirdly, we have a whole group of scores (of which New Dance is one) composed for modern dance groups including those of Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Anna Sokoloff, in which the element of rhythm assumes primacy.
New Dance as recorded here is a full orchestra setting of the finale from the dance composition of that name written in 1935 for the Humphrey-Weidman Dance Group. The original score was for piano four-hands and percussion. Of Riegger's dance scores of this period, it was observed that, "For the first time in modern dance, the music had meaning and musical worth." Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gave the first performances of New Dance in its orchestral version. New Dance is, in essence, a study in cumulative rhythmic and dynamic impact, based throughout on a single pattern that might be called a synthesis of rhumba and conga.
ALAN HOVHANESS (1911-2000) is one of the most interesting, and sometimes baffling, personalities on the present-day scene of American creative music. Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, of Armenian and Scottish parentage, Hovhaness composed music virtually from his childhood years. He underwent systematic studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, as well as at the Berkshire Music Center under Bohuslav Martinü.
His early compositions were strongly influenced by the idiom of Sibelius; but when he became organist at Boston's Armenian Church and there heard old chants and songs founded on the traditions of his paternal ancestors, Hovhaness decided that there lay the road toward a musical language through which he could be true to himself.
Despite the fact that he has destroyed practically all the music he had written prior to 1940, including a pair of symphonies, Hovhaness has composed nearly 100 works since then—all of them based on his personal interpretation of the spirit of Armenian liturgical and dance music. It should be stressed that Hovhaness has not attempted either musical archeology nor folklorism, but has sought rather to evoke the simplicity, fervor and fascinating harmonic and rhythmic textures of the ancient chants. As tools for this task, he has drawn not just on the idiom of the old melodies as they exist today, but has employed modern rhythmic and contrapuntal procedures hand-in-hand with devices found in medieval troubadour and church music. Thus it is that we find in Hovhaness's music what may seem to be an odd agglomeration of Gregorian modalism, modern polytonality and polyrhythm, Landino cadences in the 14th century manner, and continually repeated ostinato figurations. The orchestral scoring, while full of color, is strangely chaste in much the manner of a Byzantine mosaic or religious icon. Among the most successful of Hovhaness's compositions have been the Thirtieth Ode of Solomon, the St. Vartan Symphony and the Concerto Arevakal recorded on this disc.
Arevakal is the name by which the Lenten season is designated in the Armenian Church and means literally, "the coming of the sun." The music of Hovhaness's Concerto for Orchestra thusly titled was composed for the Little Orchestra Society, which gave the work its world premiere under the direction of Thomas Scherman in New York on February 18, 1952. Completed on July 9, 1951, Arevakal, is dedicated to the turn-of-the-century spiritualist, "Andrew Jackson Davis, Seer of Poughkeepsie." Although the Arevakal Concerto is meant to be listened to on its own terms as music, it is also quite plain that its six movements are intended to evoke some element of mystic ritual.
The first movement, Allegretto, is subtitled Incantation and is suggestive of a ritual chant in which solo horn, oboe and clarinet play leading roles. There follows a Canzona marked Andante espressivo, in which a hymn-like melody pursues its course concluding with an epilogue scored for just a single trumpet and two French horns. The dance element takes over in the third movement which bears the medieval designation of Estampie. Polytonal and canonic textures dominate here, contrast being provided by a middle episode featuring a solo flute cadenza played against a polytonal ostinato figure in the harp. Another dance movement follows, also in polytonal-canonic texture; titled Bar, after the medieval German verse pattern (A-A-B—two Stollen followed by the Abgesang). The fifth movement is an impressive piece in slow tempo called Sharagan, or hymn of praise. The middle section contains a number of the Landino cadences which sound so strange to modern ears. Arevakal concludes with a final hymnlike movement styled Ballata, apparently with reference to the 14th century Italian verse structure cultivated by Francesco Landino (c. 1325.1397) whose basic pattern can be outlined as A-B-B-A-A.
HENRY COWELL (1911-1965) is one of the most bewilderingly prolific of American composers, his catalog numbering well over 100 works in all forms, including eight symphonies. Likewise, Cowell's musical style is sometimes equally bewildering because of the violent contrast between such unconventional piano works as The Banshee and Sinister Resonance (recorded on Circle L51-101) and apparently naively folkloristic scores like Tales of Our Countryside for piano and orchestra. The answer would seem to be that Cowell's interests have for many years. been divided between research in new methods of sound production (ranging from the use of piano tone clusters played with the first and forearm to that of various electronic devices) and exploration of musical folklore the world over. Cowell possesses also a healthy awareness of his own Celtic ancestry which finds its way into many of his works including the Fourth Symphony recorded here.
The Fourth Symphony was composed in 1946 and was first performed on October 24, 1947 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Richard Burgin conducting. A prefatory note in the score (published by Associated Music Publishers, New York City) sets forth Cowell's aesthetic aims and describes the music as follows:
"The intensity of tone and dignified simplicity of Henry Cowell's Short Symphony marks its folk music heritage. Since 1941 Cowell has been engaged in the composition of a series of works which are a modern development from the style of certain American 'primitive' composers at the end of the eighteenth century. This music did many things forbidden to nineteenth century harmony, but sounds superbly for voice or orchestra.
"The first movement of the Short Symphony presents without preliminary the melodic material on which the entire composition is based. The movement consists of three contrasting hymn-like tunes. The first is in chorale or psalm-tune style, with variations; next comes a flowing andante melody, and last an energetic modal melody more strictly in the shaped-note hymn tradition than the first two. Each of these is repeated, with extended melodic development.
"Adhering to symphonic convention, the next two movements are in song form and in dance form. The second movement is built on a melody of the unaccompanied narrative ballad character, set in a tonal atmosphere suggestive of a backwoods landscape rather than a literal instrumental accompaniment. The dance movement, an elaborately developed jig melody, has a strong Irish flavor which gives a striking family resemblance to the tunes played for square dancing or for solo jig competitions among loggers from Maine to Washington across the northern United States. This is a type of tune that turns up frequently in the compositions of Henry Cowell; due perhaps to his Irish parentage, it is a kind of lively music that appeals to him particularly.
"The last movement consists of an introduction, a fuguing tune and coda. The fullest development of the thematic material has been reserved for this movement. The fuguing tune is in the famous William Billings style, with the addition of occasional dissonant notes, retaining, however, the plainness of form and the polyphonic vigor of the style."
NOTES BY D. H.
Track List & Credits:
- New Dance
Concerto No. 1 for Orchestra ("AREVAKAL")
- I Allegretto
- II Canzona
- III Estampie
- IV Allegro Vivace
- V Hymn
- VI Ballata
Symphony No. 4 (SHORT SYMPHONY)
- I Hymn, Allegro
- II Ballad: Andante
- III Dance: Vivace
- IV Fuguing Tune: Moderato con moto
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